choice

Why you don’t have free will (and why that doesn’t matter)

image of robot, lacking free will

Free will is “the unimpeded capacity to choose between different possible courses of action.” We tend to believe that everyone has free will all the time, except under certain exceptional conditions, such as being hypnotized, or having a mental illness. I’m going to argue, however, that we don’t have free will, and that this doesn’t matter, because free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Free will is an important concept to us. Moral philosophers, religious teachers, and politicians have pointed to it as essential for personal morality as well as the flourishing of civilization. For example, Kant said “a free will and a will under moral laws is one and the same” and that if “freedom of the will is presupposed, morality together with its principle follows from it.” And Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, that American values are “rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”

The opposite of free will is determinism, which means that we’re wholly conditioned and aren’t responsible for our actions, even if we think we are. Determinism is a bit of a scary concept.

We believe that if we don’t have free will, life is deterministic. And if that’s the case, we’re less than fully human. If life is deterministic we’re not able to take responsibility for our lives, but are living in a purely conditioned way, like robots.

Problems with the concept of free will

The problem is that the concept of free will doesn’t seem to match up with how things actually are. For example, the American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet did an experiment a long time ago. He asked people to perform a certain action, like pressing a button, at random times of their own choosing. The important thing was that they were to do this action as soon as they thought of it.

Libet used EEG to monitor subjects’ brains as they did this experiment and found that there was a burst of activity initiating the pressing of the button. This took place something like three tenths of a second before the participants had their first awareness of any conscious will to act.

So that’s a challenge for the idea of free will, because free will is the experience of choosing. But what Libet saw was that something that was not experienced consciously was pushing people to make a choice. It’s a bit like asking someone to jump into a swimming pool at a random time, but behind them some hidden person is actually pushing them in. What seems to happen is that just after the person has been pushed, they think, “OK, I’ve just decided to jump.”

As observers to this event, we can see that the person who thinks they decided to jump didn’t actually jump. They were pushed. Which means that they only thought they decided to leap. Which means that they only thought they had free will.

Another more recent experiment, using more sophisticated MRI equipment, asked people to perform an action with either their right or left hand. In this case it was possible to see activity taking place a full five to six seconds before the action was taken. This activity allowed the scientists to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, which decision would be taken. So that’s even more challenging.

You might want to imagine the decision-making process as being like a whole line of hidden people behind the person by the pool. There’s a whole chain of shoves, with someone at the back of the line creating a domino effect, until eventually the person standing at the edge falls into the pool, saying, “OK, I just decided to jump in!”

This doesn’t leave much room for the conventional understanding of free will, which involves conscious choice. And since free will is seen as crucial to morality, this is very jarring.

Why the free will concept is so cherished

I gather that the concept of free will arose as part of Christian thinking. In that model, God put us on earth, and will ultimately judge us based on what we do here. For example we’ll be judged  based on whether we accept or reject the existence of God, and on whether we follow his will.

Imagine a God demanding that we make certain decisions and punishing us (for eternity) for failing to do so. And imagine that he’d created us without free will. Such a model would be cruel and arbitrary.

Anyone believing that God wants us to make choices pretty much has to believe in free will.

Free will is not a Buddhist concept

Now, Buddhism doesn’t talk about free will.

So what does Buddhism talk about? Well, Buddhism’s certainly not deterministic. The essence of Buddhist practice is that we are able to make choices. For example, the very first chapter of the Dhammapada, a very influential Buddhist text, is called the twin verses, or “The Pairs,” because most of the verses are, as you’d expect, in pairs. Each pair presents a choice: Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy. Buddhism’s entire ethical system revolves around making choices between what is unskillful (what causes suffering), and what is skillful (what brings freedom from suffering).

Aren’t the ability to choose and free will the same thing? Well, no. The freedom to chose is not the same as “free will.”

Buddhism talks about conditionality. Everything arises in dependence upon something else. What arises is dependent on what existed just before. Choices arise dependent on what existed at the time of choosing. And so our choosing is never unconstrained. If “will” exists, it can never be entirely free.

The Buddha pointed out that it doesn’t work to say, “Let my consciousness be thus” and expect that to happen. You can certainly have that thought — for example, “I choose to be happy right now, and to stay that way for the rest of my life” — but it won’t work. Being happy forever is not an option available to you, because your mind is conditioned, and the conditions affecting your happiness can never be entirely under your control.

You might be able to make choices that affect your well-being in a positive way, but you’re always choosing from a limited menu. You can’t meaningfully decide to be happy, but you can make choices that nudge your mind in the direction of happiness. You can choose to do things that leave you feeling less unhappy, or maybe even just a little happier. You might, for example, choose to drop a hateful thought, or choose to relax your body, or you might choose to cultivate a loving thought. These things all make a difference. But the menu might not, at any given time, even include the option, “be happy.”

This clearly isn’t teaching determinism. It’s saying that although we can choose, we can only choose from a limited menu. Free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Having chosen, we change the conditions that are present for the next choices we make. That’s important, as we’ll see in a moment.

We have a limited capacity to choose

Often, it’s not just that we don’t have many options to choose from, but that sometimes it’s hard even to make a choice. We might not recognize that we’re able to drop one thought, to relax the body, or to cultivate another thought. At certain times we might lack mindfulness and not even realize that options are available. At those times we really are like automata.

To make a choice requires mindfulness. Choosing requires that we stand back from our own mind and see the choices available to us.

Mindfulness might allow us to recognize, for example, that we’re acting out of anger, and to see that the possibility of being kind or patient is also open to us. And if we see that those options exist, and that they have different outcomes — one that brings more conflict and misery, and another that brings  more peace and happiness — maybe we can make that choice.

But sometimes we’re not mindful. Our conditioning can be so strong, and our emotions so powerful, that we aren’t able to stand back. We’re just swept along by a tide of emotion. The conditions that allow us to choose just aren’t there.

Wiggle room

When we are mindful, it’s a very precious thing. It’s then that we have choice. We can choose not to do things that will make us and others unhappy in the long-term, and we can choose to do things that are for the long-term happiness and well-being of ourselves and others.

If we keep making these kinds of choices, we change the pathways in our brains, which creates long-term changes in how we act. We become kinder and less reactive, for example. This spiritual work is the real meaning of the word “karma,” which in fact simply means “work” or “action.” Karma is action that changes who we are, for better or for worse.

Mindfulness gives us some wiggle-room amongst all the constraints of conditioning that hem us in and restrict our freedom. And by exercising mindfulness and reducing our reactivity we’re loosening those constraints. We’re using our wiggle-room to create more wiggle-room.

Choosing is never conscious

Libet showed that we only think we make conscious choices. Choices are made, or they begin to be made, up to five or six seconds before we are consciously aware of them.

There’s a part of our mind that, when decisions (say, to jump in the pool) erupt into conscious awareness, immediately says, “I decided to do that.” I call this part of the mind “the plagiarist” because it’s trying to take the credit for things it didn’t do. The plagiarist’s voice is what we take to be the voice of the self. We’ve been hearing that voice our whole lives, and we automatically believe it. This is the reason we believe that decisions that are made unconsciously are actually conscious decisions. And this is why we believe we have a self that is consciously making choices.

That decisions happen unconsciously is not a problem for Buddhism. In fact it’s something that Buddhism is happy to accept. Indeed, tecognizing that the plagiarist is deluded, and that there is no “self” making decisions is a key insight in Buddhist practice.

As long as choice happens, it doesn’t matter that decisions start unconsciously, long before they erupt into conscious awareness. As I’ve said, that’s how all decisions happen.

And it doesn’t matter that our decision-making is conditioned and not entirely free. That’s just how things are. Everything is conditioned.

“The Pairs”

The important thing is that the decisions that are made take into account more and more our long-term happiness and well-being. That is, it’s important that wise decisions happen — decisions that widen the degree of wiggle-room we have for making further wise decisions.

So to come back to very ordinary experiences — we keep catching ourselves (as long as mindfulness is present) reacting with states such as anger and anxiety. We keep recognizing that those ways of being create pain. We keep letting go of angry and anxious ways of thinking and behaving, and instead seek love and calmness. And we keep recognizing that the result of doing this is that we become happier.

Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy.

And in seeing the two sets of consequences available to us — painful or pleasant — we give mindfulness an incentive to make an appearance.

Keep doing this over and over again, and we become more free, and happier.

But what’s happening isn’t the result of decisions being consciously made. Our belief that decisions are consciously made is a delusion. And what’s happening is not “a self” taking action. Not only is there no free will, but there’s no self to have free will.

Instead choices are making themselves. And if this happens with the awareness, “Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy,” then we find that, more and more, skillful actions result.

The plagiarist is very convincing, though. It’s not easy to see through its lies. And again, that doesn’t matter. At first all we want to happen is that we make choices that liberate. Let go of anger, and cultivate love, and you’ll be happier and freer to make further skillful choices in the future. If the plagiarist keeps saying, “I did that,” then that’s a separate problem we can tackle later. (In fact, right now that probably doesn’t even seem like a problem.)

For now, just keep valuing mindfulness and the freedom to choose that it affords us.

This article was originally written for supporters of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative. Supporters of Wildmind get access to more than 30 online courses I’ve developed, as well as other articles and guided meditations.

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Mindfulness: freedom from, freedom to

Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/BkkVcWUgwEk
Mindfulness is everywhere these days, but it’s often poorly defined. To me its central and defining characteristic is self-observation. When we’re unmindful, there’s no self-observation going on. The lights are on, but nobody’s home.

Thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions are all functioning, but there’s no inner observer, and so there’s no evaluation going on. Without evaluation there’s no mechanism for recognizing that certain thoughts etc. are causing us or others suffering. And so we’re really nothing more than a complex bundle of instincts and habits. Those instincts and habits can do amazing things, like drive a car (ever “woken up” to find you’ve driven somewhere and have no recollection of the journey?) or read a book (I often would find that I’d read several pages of a bedtime story to my kids and not paid attention to a single word I’d said.

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The key thing is our suffering. Or, to put it another way, the quality of our experience. With no observation, there’s nothing to stop us from making ourselves anything from mildly disgruntled to extremely unhappy.

When self-observation is taking place, we notice the effects of particular thoughts, words, actions, and so on. And so we’re able to make adjustments. We might notice that a certain train of thought is causing us to feel anxious or depressed or angry. We might realize that the train of thought isn’t even true. And we might decide to let go of it.

Mindfulness gives us two kinds of freedom. It gives us freedom from, and freedom to.

By “freedom from” I mean freeing ourselves from the tyranny of habit and instinct, and therefore a cultivating a growing freedom from the suffering that these unmindful behaviors cause. When we’re mindful, these habits and instincts are still there, of course. They don’t magically vanish. But when we’re mindful they’re less likely to control our minds, and instead are just thoughts and desires that we observe and that we may decide not to act on.

That’s radical in itself, because it profoundly changes the course of our being. But we also discover that we have not just freedom from unmindful ways of being, but the freedom to bring about different ways of being. We have the freedom to choose. We can choose to be kinder, for example. If we just remember that being kind is a possibility, we’re more likely to be kind. If we remember what it’s like to feel and act in a kind way, then those qualities are more likely to arise. If we’re free from angry thoughts we are also free to think in ways that are more empathetic and loving.

And what is true for being kinder is true for being patient, curious, courageous, accepting, appreciative, reflective, and for practicing other skillful qualities. With mindfulness we’re free to choose to be different.

Mindfulness gives us the freedom to stop causing ourselves and others suffering through unmindful habits, and to instead cultivate skillful habits that help to improve the quality of our own lives and that also impact other people in positive ways. It’s both freedom from and freedom to.

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Happiness is not a choice

42111675 - coffee latte art in cofeee sbop vintage color toneThe saying that “happiness is a choice” is extremely common. There’s a book by that title, as well as a gazillion articles. They all say that you can choose to be happy.

It’s not true. Happiness is not a choice.

Or at least it’s not strictly true that happiness is a choice. There’s a grain of truth here; we can influence our happiness. But happiness is a feeling, and we can’t directly choose our feelings.

What is true is that happiness is the result of our choices.

We can choose actions that will bring long-term happiness. We can choose what we say. We can choose our attitudes. We can choose to have thoughts that increase our happiness.

You might be thinking, “So, tell me what these choices are, so I can go and make them and then be happy!” as if they were major life decisions, like choosing the right home or the right job. But it’s more fine-grained than that. It’s a case of looking at what we’re thinking, saying, and doing, and making choices about the nature of each of those actions. It’s a question of making moment-by-moment choices, not big, once-in-a-lifetime choices (although those can be important too).

We need to be aware of what we’re doing physically, and how that makes us feel. So, for example, when I’m chopping vegetables I often find that I’m clenching my jaw for some reason. When I’m working on the computer I often find that my breathing is a little tight. These things contribute to a general sense of emotional tension that inhibits my happiness. As soon as I relax my jaw or let my breathing go back to a normal pattern, my being moves more in the direction of happiness. Relaxing promotes happiness.

I’ve often recommended that people watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on how our posture influences how we feel. Stand or sit in an open and expansive way, and you’ll feel more confident. Confidence leads to happiness. Stand or sit in a hunched, defensive, closed way, and you’ll feel more fearful and unhappy. This is a great illustration of my point. We choose our actions, and those actions change our level of happiness. We don’t just simply “choose to be happy.” If you try to choose happiness without changing the conditions that are undermining your happiness, nothing much is going to change. You’ll probably just get depressed.

We’re always going to have thoughts arising that contribute to our unhappiness. When you make a mistake it’s natural to think, “Man, that was stupid!” You can make a choice not to buy into and believe such thoughts, however. When we buy into our thoughts we magnify them. We take “Man, that was stupid!” and elaborate and expand it into a story about how useless we are and how we’re never going to be good at anything. And that proliferation of thought makes us unhappy. Simply letting the thought “Man, that was stupid!” pass through the mind without engaging with it makes us happier. Encouraging a more realistic, honest, and skillful thought, like “It’s OK. We all make mistakes,” helps us to be more at ease with ourselves, and thus to be happier. We’re not choosing happiness. We’re choosing how we think, and that can lead to us being happier.

We can choose to pay attention to our feelings, and that will make us happier. When my attention is caught up in my thoughts, I sometimes lose touch with my feelings, and my experience becomes kind of cold and hard. But when I pay attention to my heart (an area of the body innervated by the emotionally important vagus nerve) I’m more emotionally open and sensitive. I feel more connected with myself and with others. That’s enriching, like a black and white movie suddenly turning into color.

We can choose how we speak. Connecting honestly and kindly with others builds up bonds that lead to happiness arising in the short term (saying kind things to others makes both them and us happy in that moment) and in the long term (having positive connections with others gives us support when times get hard, and make the good times better). Again, we’re choosing actions, not happiness. But those actions lead to happiness.

Happiness arises from a million momentary choices. This is why we need to cultivate mindfulness. Without the ability to monitor our actions moment by moment, the mind will habitually and automatically default to decisions that make us unhappy.

Feelings like happiness are, according to Buddhist teachings, not actions. They’re not things we do. They’re the results of actions. They’re the consequences of our actions. You can’t choose happiness. But if you want to be happier, you can make choices that allow happiness to happen.

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Having a meditation toolkit

100 Day Meditation ChallengeOne of my online students wrote:

I find that when a dark thought or uncomfortable feeling comes up during meditation, my habitual reaction is to very quickly label it “thinking” and then return to my breath, which feels very much like I am suppressing my emotions and feelings.

And my reply was: This is a great thing to have learned about yourself. It seems that you innately know, with your inner wisdom, that this kind of suppression isn’t the way you want to live your life, and in fact with mindfulness we should be prepared to give our darker feelings room to breathe — or at least some of them.

That brings up the question of when we should simply let go of thoughts and the feelings/emotions that accompany them, and when we should give them space and take the time to sit with them. Sometimes one approach is appropriate, and sometimes it isn’t. How to decide? I’m not sure I can offer any clear-cut guidance on that. I think we need to use our inner wisdom to figure out what the most appropriate approach is. But I’ll have a go.

So I’d weigh up things like:

  • Is this thought just chatter? Like planning dinner, or thinking about our next Facebook status update? Can it simply wait? If so, let it go.
  • Is this thought destructive or unhelpful in some way? (For example, am I engaged in an angry rant, or busy telling myself how bad I am at something, or worrying?) In these cases I’d let go of the content of the thoughts (the storyline) but acknowledge any underlying feelings of hurt, fear, anxiety, etc., and give those my kindly attention.
  • Is there strong emotional baggage with this thought? Does it keep coming around again and again? If so, then again I’d let go of the thought but be attentive to the underlying feelings.
  • Is this a dark feeling, but not necessarily a destructive one? For example I consider grief and sadness to be aspects of love, rather than being “negative.” They’re what we experience when we love and have lost the object of our love. These are uncomfortable states, but not to be dismissed. We might find that here we don’t want to be too quick to dismiss even the stories. It’s not that we would engage is storytelling, but we may notice that the feeling arises from a story we’ve created (I should have been there at the end, I never said I loved him, etc.) It may be a great learning experience to understand how we’ve creating our feelings.
  • Is this a bright, positive, constructive emotional state, of say love, or joy? Are the thoughts we’re having contributing to that state? We might want to let those thoughts happen. After all, that’s what we do in lovingkindness practice; we deliberately engage with thinking that gives rise to love, kindness, appreciation, and compassion. We often think of thoughts as being “distractions” but they’re only distractions when they distract us! Sometimes they are guides leading us toward a deeper and more meaningful way of being.

If this seems like a lot of factors to consider, then you’re probably right. It can take us time to build up a model of how to act in various circumstances, and to keep tweaking that model as it encounters limitations. That’s the “wisdom” I mentioned earlier. Eventually these kinds of evaluations become second nature.

It’s good to be aware that there is a range of choices available to us. We should feel we have a toolkit of choices available to us, and develop a sense — through practice — of which seems most appropriate at any given time. And we should have the freedom to switch approaches if the one we’ve initially chosen is clearly not working. It’s fine to decide to just sit with an uncomfortable emotion. It’s fine to decide to do something about it. But if we aren’t in a position where we can take one of the other approach, we don’t have freedom.

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Feeding the wolf of love

I once heard a Native American teaching story in which an elder, a grandmother, was asked what she had done to become so happy, so wise, so loved and respected. She replied: “It’s because I know that there are two wolves in my heart, a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. And I know that everything depends on which one I feed each day.”

This story always gives me the shivers when I think of it. Who among us does not have both a wolf of love and a wolf of hate in their heart?

I know I do, including the wolf of hate, which shows up in small ways as well as large ones, such when I get judgmental, irritable, pushy, or argumentative. Even if it’s only inside my own mind – and sometimes it definitely leaks out.

We’ve got these two wolves because we evolved them, because both wolves were needed to keep our ancestors alive.

Until just 10,000 years ago, for millions of years primates, hominids, and early humans lived in hunter-gatherer groups that bred mainly within the band while competing intensely with other bands for scarce resources. Therefore, genes got passed on that promoted better cooperation inside a band and better aggression between bands. The wolf of love and the wolf of hate are stitched into human DNA.

Bands kept their distance from each other, and when they met, they often fought. For example, researchers have found that about 12-15% of hunter-gatherer men died in conflicts between bands – compared to “just” the 1% of men who died in the many bloody wars of the 20th century.

So it’s natural to fear the stranger – who, back in the Stone Age with no police around, was often a lethal threat. The related impulse to dehumanize and attack “them” also worked well (in terms of passing on genes) for millions of years.

Today, you can observe the wolf of hate all around us, in acts of thought, word, and deed. For example, as soon as we see others as “not my tribe,” whether it’s at home or work or on the evening news, the wolf of hate lifts its head and looks around for danger. And then if we feel at all threatened or mistreated or desperate, the wolf of hate jumps up and looks for someone to howl at or bite.

While the wolf of hate was vital back in the Serengeti, today it breeds alienation and anger, ulcers and heart disease, and conflicts with others at home and work.

And at a larger scale, with 7 billion people crowded together on this planet – when a flu mutation in Hong Kong can become a worldwide epidemic, when bank problems in Greece roil the global economy, when carbon emissions in one country heat up the whole world – when we fear or dehumanize or attack “them,” it usually comes back to harm “us.”

How do we feed the wolf?

So what are we going to do?

We can’t kill the wolf of hate because hating the wolf of hate just feeds it. Instead, we need to control this wolf, and channel its fire into healthy forms of protection and assertiveness. And we need to stop feeding it with fear and anger.

Meanwhile, we need to feed the wolf of love. This will make us stronger inside, more patient, and less resentful, annoyed, or aggressive. We’ll stay out of needless conflicts, treat people better, and be less of a threat to others. Then we’ll also be in a stronger position to get treated better by them.

There are lots of ways to feed the wolf of love.

We can feed it by taking in the good of everyday experiences of feeling seen, appreciated, cared about, even cherished and loved.

We can feed the wolf of love by practicing compassion for ourselves and others, and by letting these experiences of compassion sink into our heart.

We can feed the wolf of love by recognizing the good in other people – and then by taking in the experience of the goodness in others.

Similarly, we can feed the wolf of love by sensing the goodness inside our own heart, and by letting that sense of truly being a good person – not a perfect person, but a good person – also sink in.

Last, we can feed the wolf of love by seeing the good in the world, and the good in the future that we can make together – in the face of so many messages these days that are dark and despairing.

We feed the wolf of love, in other words, with heart and with hope. We feed this wolf by sustaining our sense of what’s good in other people, what’s good in ourselves, what’s already good in our world, and what could be even better in a world we can build together.

We need to stay strong to do this, to hold on to what we know to be true in spite of the brain’s tendency to focus on threats and losses, and in spite of the age-old manipulations of various groups that play on fear and anger – that feed the wolf of hate – to gain or hold onto wealth and power.

So let’s stay strong, and hold on to the good that exists all around us and inside us.

Let’s stay strong, and hold onto the good that can be, that we can nourish and build in this world.

Let’s stay strong, and hold onto each other.

Let’s stay strong enough to take in the good that feeds the wolf of love each day.

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Creating choice with inner wisdom

Srimati discusses the nature of inner wisdom, and how to make creative, rather than reactive, choices. Speaking to the Conscious Evolution group at Sharpham House, Totnes, Devon, she explains that inner wisdom is a deep level of intelligence available to us all and that accessing our inner wisdom allows us make the best choices in our life.

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How can we trust our intuition?

How do we know what’s a valuable intuition and what’s some other voice — perhaps the voice of fear, or just a delusion? Srimati explains that our responses come either from fear or love, and that we can learn to recognize the difference by asking ourselves what’s our motivation. In a way, intuition tells us whether our responses are creative and intuitive, or reactive.

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John Dewey: “The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.”

John DeweyDewey’s saying echoes Buddhist notions of impermanence and not-self. Bodhipaksa points out that the Buddhist position is not merely descriptive of how things are. Rather it amounts to a technology of happiness — a set of perspectives and tools that allows us to create more deeply fulfilling lives.

One of the most crippling — and often unacknowledged — beliefs we can have is that the self is something fixed and unchanging. When we have the idea that our personalities are set like words carved in stone the possibility of change is closed off to us.

A mountaineering friend of mine once commented that when coming down a hill you were faced with innumerable choices about whether to go to the left or right of a particular rock. The very first choice you make conditions all the others, but every single choice you make shapes the route of descent. Depending on the choices you make, you can end up where you wanted to be, or miles away from there. You can end up safe, or you can end up in grave danger.

 Choices that in themselves may not amount to much cumulatively create very different experiences of life.  

I see this principle in action in my own life all the time. I’m always making choices that in themselves may not seem to amount to much, but which cumulatively create very different experiences of life.

Now often when people talk about choices they think about the big things in life, like choosing a job or a life partner. Or often people think about trivial things like which breakfast cereal they’re going to have. But the choices I’m talking about making are generally not huge. Usually they are tiny decisions about things, like how I’m going to respond to a particular thought that has popped into my head. That thought that’s critical of a co-worker, will I spin it into a story about his failings, or will I just let it go? That fearful thought that tells me the article I’m writing isn’t going to be interesting, am I going to believe those doubts or will I let them pass by and throw myself into the act of creation? These aren’t major life-style choices, although they do matter. They affect my moment-by-moment sense of well-being, and they affect whether my life feels like play or like drudgery.

It’s because paying attention to these choices makes a difference to my well-being that they’re important. There are some choices we make — which cereal we’re having for breakfast, whether to wear the gray or the black socks — that really have no significant effect on our lives, although sometimes we put a lot of energy into such decisions, perhaps to divert ourselves from more important issues.

Just as with coming down a mountain, the accumulation of small decisions can lead us to very different places. When my two-year-old has a tantrum, do I lose my temper with her and try to use aggressive control to force her to do what I want, or can I find a more gentle and compassionate response that gives her reassurance and models a more mature form of self-control? What happens in those moments where we are faced with a screaming toddler turn out very differently depending on what mental habits we’ve developed.

 Over the course of a lifetime, we can radically reshape ourselves  

Over the course of a lifetime, we can radically reshape ourselves. I’ve seen people go from being crippled with anxiety to being confident leaders. I’ve seen people go from being prickly and aggressive to being friendly and loving. You might think a lifetime is a long time for change to come about. Surely there’s a faster way? Some new therapy or psychological tool that can bring about change in a weekend? It’s true that sometimes we can change rapidly — I’ve known some people to go from “difficult” to “mellow” in just a few weeks of meditation — but while that can happen the greater danger is that we’ll spend our entire lives looking for a quick fix rather than changing ourselves in a slow and steady way. Looking for quick change we end up making no change.

To be able to make the choices that allow for growth, that allow for the creation of a more meaningful and satisfying life, we need to have mindfulness. Without mindfulness we’re largely unaware that there even are choices to be made. Without mindfulness we simply respond habitually to our lives and there’s no possibility of change. We need to be able to stand back from ourselves, pause, and consider what’s the best way to respond.

We also need a degree of insight. Insight’s nothing magical — it comes from observing ourselves and realizing, for example, that losing our temper generally makes things worse, while being patient generally makes things better. Insight can also come from listening to other people who have made a bit more progress in working with themselves than we ourselves have done. At the very least we need to have a general sense of how we can tell the difference between impulses that are likely to create unhappiness and those are are going to lead to well-being and harmony.

 We can come to the realization that the self is not a thing but a process…  

We need patience as well. We all work within limitations. We may have strongly developed habits of unhelpful behaviors that have taken years to build up. We’re not going to be able to change those habits overnight. But we don’t have to. In going down the mountain we don’t leap from the summit down to the base; instead we simply take each rock as it appears in front of us, and decide whether we’re going to go to the left or the right. And we do that over and over again. Sometimes — often even — we’ll make the wrong choice, or fail to make a choice at all. But there will be plenty of other rocks for us to maneuver around. If I lose my temper I then have the opportunity to respond to that situation creatively — for example by letting go of my pride, by apologizing, by making amends, and by resolving to be more aware in the future.

All this amounts to what we could call a “technology of happiness” — a set of tools that allows us to transform our lives, moment by moment, into something creative, joyful, and filled with meaning.

Eventually we can come to the realization that the self is not a thing but a process, or rather a parallel series of interconnected processes. When we look at ourselves we don’t see a “thing” that needs to be changes, but multiple interwoven streams of matter, sensation, emotion, thought, and habit — each of which is already and always changing. We can realize that the problem is not bringing about change, but lies in shaping the direction of change. This is a liberating realization. Not only do we experience a sense of freedom from the idea of a fixed self, but we realize that there is nothing holding us back from further change — and there never was.

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Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected.”

A common misquotation of a saying by a famous French writer gives Bodhipaksa pause for thought: are both the misquotation and the original saying true, even if they’re saying opposite things?

“No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected. To live is to be slowly born.”
— Antoine de Saint Exupéry (1900-1944).

Antoine de Saint Exupéry was a famous French aviator and writer who most notably wrote the children’s fable, The Little Prince and who died when his plane crashed in the Mediterranean while on an Allied surveillance mission over France. His writings are deeply philosophical, poetic, and charming.

Interestingly, this quotation from his memoir, Pilote de Guerre (“Flight to Arras”), more often appears in English-language websites (and even in several books of quotations) in a mangled form: “A single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected”* rather than “No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected.”

The misquotation thus reverses the meaning of Saint Exupéry’s original statement, but still manages on the face of it to be true. (At my more cynical moments I wonder whether perhaps the secret of being deeply poetic and philosophical is to make statements that, when reversed, are still meaningful).

Let’s look at that reversal: “A single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected.”

The experience that’s known as “conversion” or “awakening” or “spiritual rebirth” or “realization” or “the arising of insight” can certainly be imagined as a single event, and in such events we find that a new being has manifested within us. We have changed, suddenly, and sometimes irrevocably. We see a new aspect of ourselves. Our being has become reoriented around a new insight, a new meaning. The purpose of our life has changed. We have new values, new priorities. We have changed so radically that there has awoken within us a stranger whose existence was previously unsuspected. Hence the mangled statement appears to be true.

But Saint Exupéry’s point in saying “no single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected” was not that sudden changes do not occur. In the passage following in his memoir he acknowledges in fact that this does happen: “Sometimes a sudden illumination seems indeed to propel a destiny in a new direction,” for example (Une illumination soudaine semble parfois faire bifurquer une destinée).

His point rather was that these “sudden illuminations” are not random events. They may appear to come from nowhere, but in fact they have their causes. They may appear to be single events but rather they are the culmination of an inextricably linked chain of events and causes. And what are those causes?

The answer lies in “To live is to be slowly born” (Vivre, c’est naître lentement). Living is the cause of awakening, or more precisely it is a certain kind of living that leads to awakening, or “sudden illumination.” It is living with mindfulness that leads to the creation of sudden illuminations and the revelation of new destinies.

When we live mindfully we do two things: we are more conscious in the moment of choice, and we open the channels of communication to a deeper level of wisdom of which we are not normally conscious while caught up in the fray of day-to-day living.

In living mindfully we are more conscious in the moment of choice. First we become more aware that there are actually choices to be made. Mindfulness creates, or perhaps better reveals, a gap between stimulus and response. In every moment we perceive sensations, thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and we habitually respond to these.

Perceiving in another person a neutral face or a frown when we expected a smile leads to a proliferation of thoughts and feelings. We start to wonder what we’ve done wrong, what kind of trouble we’re in. We perhaps start, depending on temperament, to plan how to get our retaliation in first or how best to placate the other person.

With mindfulness, however, we simply perceive the other person not smiling as expected, and we experience a feeling that’s not entirely pleasant. We notice that feeling and then we pause. Mindfulness creates a gap, and in that gap we realize there is a choice. We are aware of the habitual impulses described above, but we are also aware that we don’t have to act those habits out. We realize that we can call on other perspectives within which we can view the situation: we can wonder, perhaps, whether the other person is feeling all right. Lovingkindness has arisen. We can decide to ask them how they’re doing. Compassion has manifested.

In stepping out of the cycle of stimulus followed by mindless response, we have created a gap, and not only have we created a space in which we can choose how to respond, but we have created a gap through which the light of wisdom and compassion can shine, from within.

Sometimes, just sometimes, what shines forth through the gap is a complete surprise to us. We realize truths that we’d never before suspected. We see things in a new way. We discover that we are not who we thought we were. There is a stranger living within us, unsuspected, and little by little we are being united with him or her. The “Buddha within” is, moment by moment, choice by choice, action by action, becoming us. And in some of those moments there appears through the gap a great surge of wisdom and compassion, and we have become the stranger, or at least we have become a great deal more like the stranger, who lives within.

This is illumination. This is the arising of Insight. This is spiritual rebirth, or conversion. And “illumination “is but the sudden sighting, by the soul, of a path long under preparation” (Mais l’illumination n’est que la vision soudaine, par l’Esprit, d’une route longuement préparée). That path consists of moments of mindfulness, a myriad of single events, of tiny awakenings that lead to the birth of a new us.

[* Author’s note: Actually, the translation into English, lifted direct from Lewis Galantiere’s translation of Pilote de Guerre, is usually “No [or a] single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us” but I found this neither elegant nor entirely faithful to the original French, and so I retranslated the phrase as “No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected” (Aucune circonstance ne réveille en nous un étranger dont nous n’aurions rien soupçonné).]

Bodhipaksa is the founder of Wildmind. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com

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